By now, unless you live in Kansas City – in which case, you’re probably too busy voting day and night for the All Star game and creating new e-mail addresses to keep up with the news from other teams – you’ve probably heard several trade rumors involving the upstart, surprising Houston Astros. Mostly these rumors center around adding a top flight starting pitcher to our rotation to dispel the concern over innings pitched for rookies Lance McCullers, Jr. and Vincent Velasquez. You’ve probably seen much made of Cole Hamels and his ultimate destination, and you’ve likely heard about Johnny Cueto and Scott Kazmir, too. But one name that’s been consistently popping up for weeks now with not quite as much notice (though it’s still healthily mentioned) is Chicago White Sox pitcher Jeff Samardzija. The Astros were said in an article by Ken Rosenthal as far back as May 19th to have been scouting Samardzija.
How does this idea really stack up for the Astros, though? Here’s a look through some significant points for and against a potential trade for the 6’5" 30 year-old right-handed pitcher.
Let’s examine his stats, first, as provided by Baseball-Reference.com:
An important point right off the bat is that the Astros truly do need another arm to stand at the very top of their rotation. Talent-wise, going into the playoffs with Keuchel, McCullers and McHugh headlining our rotation would probably be exciting, but there are serious inning-limit issues with McCullers and Vincent Velasquez. There is some talk about shutting them down, a la Stephen Strasburg, down the stretch to protect their young arms. So the need is certainly there for a top flight starting pitcher. There does not appear to be a glut of potential number one pitchers available, though, which increases the stock of all those who are available – a notable example being Jeff Samardzija.
Immediately upon reviewing his statistics, one can see that his ERA this season is nearly a full run worse than his FIP, which makes sense, as the White Sox are basically the worst defensive team in baseball this year. He’s had some bad luck in that regard with the guys playing behind him, and in a very hitter friendly park. His lack of dominance on the scale of Cueto or Kazmir (who, in fairness, also pitches in front of a very bad defense) coupled with his impending status as a free agent could make him a much cheaper acquisition, in terms of the young players we’d have to send back.
It’s also important to note that Brent Strom has already built a good reputation in his time as the Astros pitching coach, building success with pitchers like Collin McHugh, who didn’t meet with much success in New York or Colorado before the Astros picked him up off waivers and paired him with Strom. At his best in his career, Samardzija has shown the ability of a number one pitcher frequently enough to merit serious consideration.
The problem with Samardzija is that despite the woeful defense behind him and his performance in a very hitter friendly park is that he’s a bit of a "project pitcher" at this point. Nothing approaching what Collin McHugh had to endure in his work with Strom early in his tenure with the Astros, but still enough of a project to consider whether it’s the best move possible for a team hoping to contend right now, in 2015. Since Samardzija is a rental player with free agency looming, the prospect of putting him on the mound with any question marks surrounding him is risky.
He also is traditionally more of a fly ball pitcher than a ground ball pitcher. It’s fair to point out that fly balls tend to produce slightly lower opposing BABIPs than ground ball pitchers. It's also worth noting that fly ball pitchers tend to strike out more batters, too. Samardzija has been a pretty solid strikeout pitcher in his career, with a mark of 8.4 K/9 over 886.1 IP to date. However, his 7.3 K/9 ratio this season is considerably below his career mark, and it’s the first time since he became a full time starter that his K/9 has dropped below 8.0 overall. As strikeouts are one of the so-named "Three True Outcomes" in baseball, in which the defense is not a factor, this drop is a significant sign for a pitcher.
He does prevent walks – another true outcome – fairly well, with a 1.7 BB/9 rate on the season versus his 3.0 BB/9 career mark, and that leads to discussion of his WHIP…which, thanks in part to that inflated BABIP caused by having a bad defense behind him, is a fairly pedestrian 1.316 on the 2015 season.
The final true outcome involves home runs, and his mark for the season is 1.0 HR/9 in this regard. That mark isn’t disastrous, but when compared to numbers from Cueto and Kazmir that are lower (Kazmir’s is .7) or Dallas Keuchel’s .5 mark this year, it becomes noteworthy. While we’re talking about Keuchel, his WAR as a starting pitcher leads all of baseball at 4.7 this year. Cueto has a 2.2 WAR in 2015, while Kazmir has a 2.0 mark. Jeff Samardzija’s WAR is 1.0 in 2015.
The Bottom Line:
In any trade scenario, there’s obviously no way to truly know the future. So a series of well calculated risks are undertaken in any trade that happens. While the Astros’ need at starting pitcher is palpable, prudence dictates that they guard against paying too much for too little. Certainly it would seem that the priority must be in Cueto or Kazmir as trade pieces, with Samardzija as a third option if those two don’t work out. The Astros would want to be quite cognizant of how much they give in return for Samardzija if they were to strike out on Cueto and Kazmir first, but if those two options fell through and the price was right, Samardzija could be a useful addition as a fall back option.